7 Common Retirement Plan Mistakes

The headlines are all about revenue-sharing, conflicts of interest and statutes of limitation — but the things that are likely to get plans and plan sponsors in trouble are a lot more mundane.

Here are seven that are more likely to gum up the works for your average plan sponsor.

1. Not following the terms of the plan document regarding the administration of loan provisions (maximum amounts, repayment schedules, etc.) or hardship withdrawals.

Plan documents routinely provide that hardship distributions can only be obtained for certain very specific reasons, and that participants first avail themselves of all other sources of financing before applying for hardship distributions. (These conditions often are incorporated directly from the requirements of the law.) Similarly, loans are permissible from these programs only when they comply with certain standards regarding the amount, purpose and repayment terms.

Failure to ensure that these legal requirements are met can, of course, result in a distribution that is not authorized under the terms of the plan document. And since these types of distributions are often spent quickly by participants, and thus are not readily recoverable, it can be complicated and time-consuming to set the situation right.

Oh, and don’t forget that administrative procedures for dealing with such things have been known to be, or become, inconsistent with plan documents over time.

2. Failure to follow plan document eligibility and vesting provisions.

The plan document also spells out employees’ rights to retirement benefits and the formulas for determining them based on the correct application of service and/or age requirements of the plan regarding eligibility for participation, as well as the proper application of the plan’s vesting schedule.

To comply with those requirements, you need to maintain accurate service records for all employees. If these records are incorrect, the benefits provided may be incorrect — either in excess of what is permissible or less than what was due to the participant. Note that the failure to properly follow the plan’s provisions can cause the plan to lose its qualified status.

The plan document serves as the foundation for plan operations; simply put, it is the operating manual for the plan. Sometimes, particularly if you are relying on a document that has been prepared by a third-party service provider, certain “gaps” can emerge between what the document allows and how the plan is actually administered. As a result, it is a good idea to conduct a document/process “audit” every couple of years. Don’t assume that “the way we’ve always done things” is supported by the legal document governing your plan.

3. Not keeping your plan document up to date.

As central to the plan’s operation as the plan document should be, it needs to be updated when the tax laws affecting 401(k) plans change. The IRS generally establishes a firm deadline by which plan amendments reflecting tax law changes must be adopted. If you don’t remember the last time you updated your plan, you’re probably overdue.

4. Not starting required minimum distributions (RMDs) on time.

A minimum payment must be made to the participant by the required beginning date (RBD) and for each following year. Normally, the RBD for a participant who is not a 5% owner is April 1 following the end of the calendar year in which the latter of two events occurs: either the participant reaches age 70½ or the participant retires. For 5% owners, the RBD is April 1 following the end of the calendar year in which they attain age 70½ regardless of their retirement date.

Plan sponsors often discover that required minimum payments either have not been paid on a timely basis or have not been paid at all, especially when a non-5% owner continues working after reaching age 70½. Failure to follow the minimum payment rules as written in the plan document can lead to the loss of the plan’s tax-qualified status. If participants or beneficiaries do not receive their minimum distribution on time, they — not the plan — are subject to a 50% additional tax on the underpayment.

5. Not depositing participant contributions on a timely basis.

The legal requirements for depositing contributions to the plan are perhaps the most widely misunderstood elements of plan administration. A delay in contribution deposits is also one of the most common flags that an employer is in financial trouble — and that the Labor Department is likely to investigate.

Note that the law requires that participant contributions be deposited in the plan as soon as it is reasonably possible to segregate them from the company’s assets, but no later than the 15th business day of the month following the payday. If employers can reasonably make the deposits sooner, they need to do so. Many have read the worst-case situation (the 15th business day of the month following) to be the legal requirement. It is not.

Note also that the rules about the timing of matching contributions or other employer contributions are different than those for elective deferrals.

6. Failing to obtain spousal consent.

A common plan mistake submitted for correction under the Voluntary Correction Program (VCP) is the distribution to a participant of a benefit in a form other than the required QJSA (e.g., a single lump sum) without securing proper consent from the spouse. This often happens when the sponsor’s HR accounting system incorrectly classifies a participant as not married (or when the participant was not married at one point and subsequently married or remarried).

The failure to provide proper spousal consent is an operational qualification mistake that would cause the plan to lose its tax-qualified status.

7. Paying expenses from the plan that are not eligible to be paid from plan assets.

Assuming that the plan allows it (another plan document check), the Department of Labor has divided plan expenses into two types: so-called “settlor expenses,” which must be borne by the employer; and administrative expenses, which — if they are reasonable — may be paid from plan assets. In general, settlor expenses include the cost of any services provided to establish, terminate or design the plan. These are the types of services that generally are seen as benefiting the employer, rather than the plan beneficiaries.

Administrative expenses include fees and costs associated with things like amending the plan to keep it in compliance with tax laws, conducting nondiscrimination testing, performing participant recordkeeping services or providing plan information to participants.

IRS Guidance Available

As for plans that fall short of any of the above, the IRS has resources available to help you identify these problems before they occur — and an outline of how to go about fixing them if they do occur. And should you find a plan in one of the foregoing predicaments, you might want to check out these resources from the IRS:

• If you haven’t updated your plan document.

• If you have issues with required minimum distributions.

• If you haven’t made contributions on a timely basis.

• If you didn’t get spousal consent.

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